Shooting for Free - Is It Worth It?

Shooting for Free - Is It Worth It?

As a full-time freelance photographer, we often ask ourselves why we should work for free, especially at the start of our careers. Are we being taken for a ride, or is it worth investing in our client for possible future returns? 

To give you a bit of background, I’m a photographer residing in Cape Town, South Africa. In my experience, photography is not really seen as something more than a mere hobby where I live. We have a handful of top professionals, who managed to break the international barrier. Yet, there are tons of photographers working under the international radar and trying their best to hit the big time jackpot. Unfortunately, most of them find it difficult to pay the bills at the end of the month as well as grab those high-end clients. So why should they accept free work? 

Starting out as a band photographer in 2008, I only did free shoots for musicians, whether it was a studio/location shoot or concerts. I did it for the love of the game while finishing my studies in Photography. Every now and then I was lucky when I was offered payment for the shoot, even if it was just a beer or a free T-shirt to say thanks. What remained after the shoot was an established relationship. I became friends with many of the artists I shot during the early years of my photography career and only about a decade later did it started paying off when I was contacted again by one of the musicians I worked with. This time the work was fully commissioned. I managed to shoot one music video for the client and he referred me to someone else who also needed some work done. It only takes one person to believe in your work for you to succeed. 

I’ve also established a relationship with a few digital agencies over the years from shooting events for little or no payment and because of that, I’m receiving commissioned shoots or retouching projects from them years later.

So why work for free when I could’ve charged for all those projects? Some people could say it’s the drug dealer’s tactic of charging very little or nothing at all in the beginning and then raising your prices later. I network and meet clients face to face and establish a proper foundation first, making sure they remember me as well as my work. The years of doing free work allowed me the opportunity to meet the people I needed to meet in order to grow my client base through word of mouth mostly.

Through the years I made the decision of not doing any free work at all anymore. I turned down at least 3-5 clients per week due to not being able to adjust to their small budget, or in some cases thinking I was above doing shoots for free. This made me realize my network wasn’t expanding as fast as it used to, and I was busy digging my own grave. I started accepting free shoots again when I had time, as long as they fit into my style of work and if it’s something I’d like to add to my portfolio. This way I had a chance to network again and build up contacts in the industry.

From the free shoots I’ve done in the last while, most of them either referred me to paying clients or commissioned me themselves to do another shoot. I think the key here is a balance, and to never lose the passion you had when you first started with photography. If you have time to spare, why not do a TFCD/TFP shoot or two if you think it’ll add to your portfolio. Establish new business relationships or follow up with old clients. I’ve met so many talented make-up artists, stylists and models through doing free work. I was lucky enough they liked my work an kept that relationship going through the years and work with me again on commissioned shoots.

As any artist or photographer knows, your work evolves over the years. You only become stronger if you practice enough. And I’m sure this is why the relationships I established in the earlier years of my career paid off in the end. 

What are your thoughts on working for free?  Would you ever consider it?

Fred van Leeuwen's picture

Fred van Leeuwen is a South African-based photographer and filmmaker. He operates under The Image Engineer, working on short films, portraits, and landscape photography.

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Fair advice I think.
The problem sometimes is you are asked and agree to do something for free but you realise at the gig that everyone else is getting paid except you and the green eyed monster comes out. For me I like to help out small groups who are not trying to profit from me. I admire amateur associations of all types especially those who organise sport or arts for young people. They deserve to be helped if they ever need a photographer.

I think the question of if you should work for free is pretty loaded. In my experiences clients that I have worked with for free for their first job with promises of paid work in the future have never come back and said they'd now like to pay me, they just move on the to next photographer who will work for free. However, I have accepted unpaid work for a few reasons, they have a team ready to go and the out of pocket expense for me is minimal, they have good creative to go along with the team, and I feel like the images will benefit my book. I have also worked for free for charity reasons as I feel those benefits far outweigh not getting paid for a days worth of work. Currently with where I am at in my career I tend to only accept unpaid work for charitable reasons. I will say treating prospective clients soliciting for unpaid work the same as you would a client soliciting for paid work is important. I have on two occasions turned down clients looking for me to work for free only to have them come back, in one case it was about a year later and the other it was between 2-3 years later after they'd grown their businesses to level of being able to pay for my services and hire me. I attribute that to being polite and respectful to them while turning them away.

Sure I think it's fine if you have the interest, time, and don't need money. Dedication and commitment with a good positive personality will win long term most of the time.

There's 3 ways to do work for free and these are really the only exceptions I will make.

1. Personal Projects:

These are your ideas, they fit your style, you find other people/things for it. This is your work. That's the most important part of it. This is what helps develop where your style/portfolio goes.

2. TFP

Trade for print. This is a collaboration between 2 or more people. Usually a model and photographer, sometimes you add in a MUA and/or hair stylist. These are like basic shoots, usually for content filler for instagram and padding your portfolio with things that fit your style. Also help get your name out there when people share your work.

3. Actual working for free/reduced rate

These are the real gambles. You are not getting the most out of it, but it could be a good networking opportunity or thing on your resume. I did headshots at my old university for free for their career fair for 1 year as a trial run and then got hired the year after for a pretty nice check. I also took photos for free of puppies for the Puppy Bowl because that's a plus on the resume too.

All of this is spot on.

Completely agree...networking is so important in this business and if you have to work for free sometimes in order to expand that network, I think it's worth it.

Great post. Thanks. I've been working for 'free' since I started this journey a few years ago...often it's more rewarding to yourself to get out and shoot what you love. Unfortunately, time= money still, so I'm often at odds and discouraged when it comes to freebies.

Never work for nothing, but sometimes you might want to work for no money.

Personal projects, for instance (if it's my idea, it's free; if it's their idea, I'll bill them), or charity. Charity should be real charity--don't count on anything from it, maybe not even networking contacts. Charity should be for your own feeling of doing good and nothing more--that way you will never be disappointed.

I never work for reduced rate, I only work full price or free. Nobody respects a reduced rate for photography--they never see it as a good deal and won't respect a photographer for cutting his rate. If I like someone ENOUGH, I'll do the job for free. If I don't like them enough to give them a $2000 present, I'll just buy them a blender and a Hallmark and call it done.

nope, my kids gotta eat and gear isn't cheep.

I think all the above comments have validity. I am considering shooting for a local magazine in trade for ad space in their pages. I'd prefer $$, but I want access to the people they will want me to shoot, sooo....

I've done this before in a architectural magazine with high circulation in the industry. Didn't get a single call. I honestly don't know if it was my ad that was no good or if the magazine didn't get the numbers it claimed to get.

As long as the project is not commercial in nature AND I have creative freedom, I do enjoy in participating in collaborations with other creative folks. What bothers me are these situations when companies or individuals ask for "trade" work that is clearly commercial in nature - especially if they throw the dreaded "exposure" as a form of compensation.

I shot a corporate event at a VIP tent at a marathon for free; talked to people, made an impression. incl. drive 4 hours there and about 3 hours post-processing. Now negotiating about once a monthly paid video assignment...

Free work could be some sort of entry fees to new category or new segment of clients.
I believe it is healthy to do some free work from time to time as a cost of expansion and getting more people to know you.
+ we should be aware enough where and when we should do it free of charges.

You gotta find the balance in your business before you find yourself on the floor. If that means you do pro bono work then you do it. Every profession uses pro bono as a marketing tool. Even lawyers.

Good post.

It's very interesting topic for me, so thanks for the article and all input guys.

My experience is a bit different as I've got fulltime job that pays well, however since I'm just starting turning my passion for photography into 'job' I can tell you that it's quite hard to find even free, yes FREE assignments...posted some ads here and there and only had couple of people that were looking for some stuff to be added either to their portfolio or some creative type work and just a few low-ballers along with some creeps.

Had one guy asking me to do some photography for him but he decided I'm to expensive as I asked for fuel reimbursement (driving 80miles in total) and covering smoke machine fluid cost - around £20 in total...

Having worked in the creative industry for the past 10 years I have witness how it turned into total cesspool, thanks to people who either work for free or were happy to work for 1/8of typical rate as they have used pirated software or still living with their parents...

I think the economy is in terrible shape these days...

My advice, never work for free, unless there's clearly visible benefit in doing so, charge small fee. Never trust the 'I might comeback with more well paid jobs' when you hear this in the very opening paragraph of a conversation.

Good article, and heaps of good points coming out of the comments section too. I guess it comes down to what you're hoping to get out of the experience if not money. Money pays bills, bills that have nothing to do with photography, and it finances the sort of lifestyle you desire. I can't see much of an amazing lifestyle if you're working for free. I hate seeing a profession where such individual skill, creativity, personality and effort is involved becoming a race to the bottom price war.

There's no such thing as shooting for free. At least, there shouldn't be.

You are either in one of these stages:

1. Building first portfolio (or expanding portfolio, or rebranding portfolio)
2. Doing paid work to earn a living.

Developing the first portfolio is certainly worth it, as well expanding and rebranding if/when need be.

Please don't EVER shoot for free.

I'm an amateur mainly trying to improve at the art. I mostly do free projects: stuff I dream up. When asked to do something for free, I don't mind doing it as long as the person asking isn't too demanding and isn't using the work for profit. Free work is usually done my way with mostly my vision. If I have expenses, the requester pays them: makeup artist, studio time, permits, etc. If it's going to take a lot of time (I do have a day job) and retouching, well, free goes by-by.

A few thoughts...

I rate a project by 3 criteria:

1. Money
2. Portfolio
3. Relationships

All jobs for me, get rated by this criteria only and that job must have 2 out of the 3 for me to accept it (generally).

Working for free to build your portfolio is good and necessary evil but they has to be a point to when you have to say no more as you will always be that photographer who will do free work and you can never turn a free client into a $5000 client...and if you do / did that good but the odds are squarely against you.

My thoughts on business that prey on the free work are usually not around long enough to become a paid client so why bother as they do not really understand how the game is played. Even as a company you have to pay to play and also pay to make money. as photographers we invest in training, gear, ect to make money. Any company who plans to be around in the long term has to do the same invest in themselves and not cheap out, Get a fair price but not cheap out.

So working for free in my book will go against you in the long run and you will be out of business.

I think the author is a very lucky exception to the rule. The only reason I would ever consider doing anything for free is if it's a video/photo project that i feel would greatly enhance my portfolio, and even then, I'd try to get at least some of my basic costs covered.

In my experience, the people who promise "exposure" or "paid work in the future" for free work now are full of it, and will never fulfill those promises. Also, once people get used to paying nothing or very little for a service, it is very hard to convert them into someone who pays your full value. You've never going to convert a bottom feeding client into that guy who suddenly has a 10,000 dollar budget.

I recently heard a story about Joe McNally taking a gig for a lesser amount (his assistant made more than he did that shoot) in order to get in with a big name corporate client, so I think there is validity in doing a shoot either for free, or for a discount. I would agree to do a trade for print especially if I was looking to add something to my portfolio or to gain experience shooting it.

Question is, how do you then convert these relationships to paying clients? Obviously, some will only ever expect to get your services for free, but, would you do more than one shoot for someone that wasn't paid? How can you make the transition?

I was recently speaking with another photography friend about this. I definatly offer to shoot specific people/things for free if it will help build my book and overall my knowledge of photography. Getting to shoot with OCF, shooting in a studio the first time, shooting with professional MUA's, models...get out there and get as much time behind the camera as possible. Make connections, but don't devalue yourself or the people in your close community. By doing that, your doing the rest of the people in the community a disservice. If your unsure about what you should charge, Talk to a professional in your network.

It's not about how much you charge, it's about the fear you have of taking someone's money and not having confidence in your work. Be confident and ask for what you think is right. If they reject your rate, move on or find a price that works but don't undervalue your time.

I do it when the concept and/or location is interesting; and useful for my portfolio or social media.

I am a commercial photographer, former photojournalist, and teach photography at a community college. Thank you for generating this discussion... You are describing a problem fairly unique to photographers that we have created for ourselves.

I fully agree with the poster, above, who said that you should only charge your full rate, or work gratis when shooting for actual non-profits that you are passionate about helping. To do otherwise, you contribute to the artificially lowed rates that work against every true professional photographer out there seriously trying to earn a living.

What if accountants (insert profession of choice here) worked for free? What effect would that eventually have on the rate accountants could charge in the free market? And just why is it that (insert profession of choice here) don't work for free, but so many photographers insist on doing so? If you don't value your work, how do you expect a potential paying client to do so?

"Shooting for free - is it worth it?" Actually, you've provided the answer to your own question. You said… "Starting out as a band photographer in 2008, I only did free shoots for musicians.... only about a decade later did it start “paying off” when I was contacted again by one of the musicians I worked with." So, let’s see, after 10 years you finally started bringing in some money. Notice that I did not say “earned income,” because it may take you another 10 years to offset the work you did for free before any money coming in can truly be viewed as “income.” And all those bands you did work with for free, now have the mindset that there is always some eager amateur photographer out there (not you, because you charge now) who will shoot for free.

You said, "Unfortunately, most of them [photographers] find it difficult to pay the bills at the end of the month as well as grab those high-end clients….”

Precisely. Is this a mystery?

Sadly since photography in general, especially non-commercial work, is not hired based on technical craft/skills. It is based on relationships. And those whom are introvert photographers are barely or not at all surviving if they started in this era that requires more heavy handed relationships with people.

I'm against any type of volunteering (except to help someone in need), but on the other hand if you want to build your portfolio I'm afraid you'll need to get over it and do some free stuff at the beginning of your career.

As Jarod Kintz, the author of This Book is Not for Sale puts it, "Just because it’s called freelancing, doesn’t mean you work for free. If you charge nothing, people will assign an equal value to your work."

We have to redefine what shooting for free means. Just because you're not shooting for straight up cash doesn't mean you're getting nothing out of it.

However, the problem I see with most photographers complaining about shooting for free is letting people/companies low-ball and approach them for free gigs - not the other way around.

If someone approaches me looking for free work my answer is "no" pretty much all the time. However, I actively look for my own opportunities to shoot for free and there are many. I've done sessions where my MUA got paid and I got nothing, however, what I did get was massive marketing boosts from the social media aspect targeting my core client base. This equated to more bookings at my full rate.

I can think of at least five other scenarios that have worked out similarly.

When you're not shooting for cash you should be using that opportunity to build your portfolio, expand your networks, or keep building your brand. Are there times when I've regretted shooting for free? Definitely. But many times I've gotten a HUGE bang for my efforts to the tune of multiple bookings both private and corporate.

You need to calculate out the play in your mind on whether it is worth it to shoot for free. Will this person cheerlead your business? Are they a face that will draw attention to your work? Can you leverage them to build your network so that you can reach other potential leads?

All this plays factor.

If you're new to the game and have no money coming in you have to stay busy, fresh, and relevant. Shooting for free is a way to do that but make sure you're doing really quality stuff with quality folks. Market the stuff as if you're getting paid - nobody has to know you shot for free except the immediate people you worked with.